Figure of 8 on the Welsh roads

John Osmond argues for upgrading Wales’s internal strategic motoring routes by constructing regular passing places

Today I shall be driving the length of my favourite road, the A470 between Cardiff and Llandudno. I explained why it’s my favourite road in my first contribution to this news site, back in March last year here (it’s a miracle that we’ve been publishing daily posts ever since).

Today’s journey, which is to attend the IWA’s North Wales Branch annual dinner with First Minister Carwyn Jones in attendance, has an added significance since I’ll be getting underway immediately following giving evidence to the National Assembly Enterprise and Learning Committee on why upgrading the road is of such importance. My written evidence can be accessed at the Committee’s website here.

In essence what I have to say is a re-iteration of a report the IWA published back in 1999, incidentally on the day of the first elections to the Assembly in May that year. Our report, Uniting the Nation: Improving north-south road links in Wales, was commended and supported by the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Local Government Association at the time. However, nothing happened. Why?

Welsh Government officials were able to side-line the report because at the time their own multi-modal north-south study was being commissioned. Since 1999 the main emphasis has been on improving north-south train links between Bangor and Cardiff, rather than road connections. And, although these improvements are to be welcomed, the fact is that the service runs through England and so is largely irrelevant to the majority of north-south travellers living in the heart of Wales. Moreover, the rail service from north Wales to London (215 miles) is still of much higher quality and quicker than the service to Cardiff (130 miles).

Again, while the new subsidised air service from Valley in Anglesey to Cardiff Airport is of great benefit to a small number of travellers, it can only serve a limited market with limited origin and destination requirements. Leaving aside the environmental impact, it is encouraging that the take-up of the service has been so good. But the aircraft deployed are small, mainly because if they were bigger the landing charges would increase, making the service uneconomic, even with a subsidy. And, of course, Valley is hardly a central location. Even without road improvements, overall north-south air journey times door-to-door compared with car journeys don’t add up for most people living in north Wales.

The principal recommendation in the IWA study – the provision of overtaking lanes at regular points on the trunk road network – was simply rejected by the Welsh Government as not being part of UK highway design and construction practice. Officials said, in effect, that ‘three-lane’ highways were off limits.

This is a mind-set that should be challenged. First, we were not proposing a ‘three-lane’ highway. We proposed dual-carriageway passing places at regular intervals, going north and south. Secondly, a similar approach has been adopted in many other countries around the world – Ireland, Australia, the United States and Norway to name just a few.

There is now a strong case for researching the performance and specification of this kind of road improvement in other countries. After all, what is appropriate for urban England is hardly likely to be appropriate for rural Wales. Our study pointed out that within the UK generally there was a shift away from road construction towards a policy of integrated transport. But it went on to add:

“Such a policy may be appropriate for England; it may be less appropriate for Wales with its scattered settlement patterns and with so little rail and air transport to integrate with.”

And as it also argued, while there are opportunities for enhancing bus and coach services in both urban and rural Wales, these in turn need road space to deliver more speedy and reliable services.

What Wales still needs is the holistic approach to north-south road links. And the arguments for it have grown substantially in the years since the report was published, for the following reasons:

  • There was general agreement among the business organisations we consulted about our report that journey times were a critical consideration.
  • Journey times by road through the heart of Wales are still variable and unsatisfactory.
  • There are significant economic benefits to be gained from improving average speeds and reducing normal journey times.
  • There are significant health and safety benefits for the community in general from reduced travelling time, reduced stress, and less pollution.
  • The employment prospects of the rural population can be significantly improved by reducing travel to work times.
  • Employment prospects for the rural population can also be improved by reducing the transport cost ‘premium’ affecting business in remote areas.
  • Accessibility, a key element of the Welsh Government’s social agenda, is dependant to a great degree on the quality of road transport.
  • Access to most health, social, education, shops and other services in rural and peripheral areas is dependant on road travel.

The financial implications of the IWA’s proposals made more than a decade ago were deliberately modest. We did not want a scheme capable of being immediately rejected because it was way beyond the available budget. The extra expenditure resulting from implementation of the recommendations would have been of the order of £63 million at prices that applied in 1999. We proposed they should be spread over a ten-year period, amounting to an average of £6.3 million a year.

In terms of the overall Welsh roads budget for new construction and improvement these were relatively small sums. For instance, over the period 1986 to 1998 the Welsh roads budget fluctuated between £76 million at its lowest and £140 million at its highest. The extra spending proposed in our report was therefore well within the limits of previous variability in spending.

It provided a classic instance where the new Welsh Government had the capacity to determine a new priority.

It is regrettable that the opportunity was not taken at the time, especially since inflation in construction costs – which traditionally outstrips RPI – will have pushed the total cost up very substantially.

At the same time the public expenditure context could not be worse. The draft capital allocation for 2011-12 for the domestic trunk road network in Wales would see a drop from £75.3m to £56.6m, a cut of 25 per cent from a level that had already been sharply reduced. The capital budget for improving and maintaining local roads would also see a drop from £68.2m to £24.6m, a cut of 64 per cent.

It is tempting, therefore, to put aside all notions of improving north-south road links. That would be a mistake. All the reasons that led us to undertake our initial study remain relevant. Moreover, road schemes can take a decade or more to plan and construct. Ministers and officials should look beyond the next two public expenditure rounds, and begin planning now for projects that might not come to pass until beyond 2020.

When I drove down the A470 from Llandudno to Cardiff (to vote) after the launch of our Uniting the Nation report in 1999, the journey took me around four-and-a-half hours. There have been quite a few improvements to the road since then, for example widening and straightening a particularly tricky section between Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog. Currently they’re working on the bendy section between Builth Wells and Rhayader. But today’s journey is still going to take around four-and-a-half hours.

What we need is those passing places. What we need, too, is the principle being extended to the whole of Wales’ internal figure of 8 strategic network shown in the map.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

3 thoughts on “Figure of 8 on the Welsh roads

  1. “The principal recommendation in the IWA study – the provision of overtaking lanes at regular points on the trunk road network – was simply rejected by the Welsh Government as not being part of UK highway design and construction practice.”

    Yet isn’t that exactly what is being implemented by the Welsh Government for the upgrading of the A40 in Pembrokeshire? Some progress at least…

  2. There have also been improvements on the A487 and currently, the Porthmadog bypass is being constructed. However, I agree with the principle of short overtaking lanes and believe that there is now more sympathy for this, at least within the current administration.

  3. The passing sections should preferably be on uphill sections.
    The tendency is for vehicles to increase their speed on passing sections. The benefit is therefore reduced. When the section is downhill the lead vehicle can increase their speed to the point that it becomes very difficult to pass them. There are stretches of the road from Gloucester to Chepstow and Swindon to Oxford that turn into racetracks when lorries get up to 75mph and cars try to overtake them at 85mph. I won’t travel from Swindon to Oxford for this reason. It’s dangerous.

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